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Charter schools want closing buildings. Does IPS have to give them up for $1?

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By ELIZABETH GABRIEL WFYI

School pride looks a little different at Victory College Prep, a K-12 charter school on the southeast side of Indianapolis. Each month, the school’s kindergarten through sixth graders gather in the gymnasium for a town hall where each class stands up to clap their hands and stomp their feet as they sing encouraging chants.

Now VCP wants to expand that school spirit to another building half a mile away — Paul Miller Elementary School 114. The school building will close at the end of the school year and students will attend Frederick Douglass SUPER School 19. Currently, VCP has two buildings that house K-6 and 7-12 grade students. If a partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools is approved, the charter school would likely create K-4, 5-8 and 9-12 facilities. 

The school’s executive director, Ryan Gall, announced VCP’s intention to purchase School 114 during an IPS school board meeting in late October. Gall also said he reached out to IPS Superintendent Aleesia Johnson and the district’s board of commissioners, but hasn’t heard back from the district. 

Forming a new partnership that benefits both IPS and a charter school isn’t easy. In 2011, lawmakers passed the $1 law, which requires public school districts to sell or lease unused buildings to charter schools or state educational institutions for $1. Over the years, the district has had a number of buildings that don’t have students, but IPS has avoided the law by housing administrative departments.

Johnson has sought to change the $1 law to exempt the district, and the issue is expected to be debated in the current legislative session. 

The Indiana Charter School Network filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office last month, claiming IPS violated the $1 law. Marcie Brown-Carter is the executive director of the Indiana Charter School Network and a VCP board member. She claims the district should have notified the Indiana Department of Education about the six closing buildings within 10 days of the IPS board of commissioners vote to close them on Nov. 17.

In response to the claim, IPS said the school board has “committed to a transparent decision-making process” to determine the future of the closing buildings and will announce future plans for them by the end of the school year.

“We want to be very clear that until the end of the school year, there are students and teachers in all of our proposed consolidated buildings, and we will remain focused on ensuring they are well-supported through that time,” the district said in a statement.

At least 3 charter schools want to use an IPS building

Now the future of the six closing buildings is still unclear. VCP was included in the district’s resolution for its Rebuilding Stronger plan, which mentions IPS’ intention to partner with more schools that have either expressed interest in a collaboration or have success in improving academic performance for Black and brown students. Those schools also include Adelante Schools and KIPP Indy, which have reached student enrollment capacity at their current facilities or want to expand to serve more neighborhoods.

“Because of tremendous community demand, our K-8 facility is currently at 130 percent of its target capacity and we hope to work collaboratively with IPS to address this challenge,” Andy Seibert, KIPP Indy’s executive director, wrote in a statement. “One option we’ve discussed is partnering around facilities that are becoming available as a result of Rebuilding Stronger, and we are most interested in collaborating around an additional facility in our current neighborhood.”

Gall said VCP is willing to pay more than a dollar for School 114 and would like to discuss offers from IPS, whether that means paying off what IPS still owes on the building, buying the facility for its appraised value or exploring new partnership options. 

“Innovation is the most traditional partnership, but we could also look at, is there a way to transition that building to us and offer more community services there that serve all schools in this quadrant,” Gall said. “I don’t think innovation has to be the only way that you could form a partnership between a charter school and the district.”

Since announcing VCP’s intention to purchase School 114 during an IPS school board meeting in October, Gall has publicly made his case for IPS to partner with the local charter school.

Gall said the school has worked to boost academic performance among the school’s students of color, which represents 88% of the school population. Every classroom has a teacher who provides standard academic instruction and behavioral support, as well as a co-teacher who provides additional academic support.

“If you look at our student proficiency, we’re dealing with students who for years have been either marginalized by the school system or who have grown up with extra academic needs,” Gall said. “By putting a co-teacher in the classroom, we can focus in on specific student reading levels, specific student math gaps — we can provide one on one support.”

In its 17th year, the school has refined its model to support students academically, socially and emotionally. The school also touts its reputation as a K-14 facility since the school has a director of college transitions who supports students during their first two years after high school.

VCP has the space to build another facility on its property to expand its elementary program, but Gall wants to use School 114 and repurpose a community resource that already exists and is a historical part of the neighborhood.

Although VCP would like to work with the district, the school is willing to acquire the building by utilizing “all available legal pathways,” Gall said, including the $1 law. Depending on when a contract is reached between IPS and renovations are completed, VCP anticipates serving students in the School 114 building in fall 2024.

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at egabriel@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @_elizabethgabs.

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